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Neil Fraser visits Braamfontein
30 June 2008

There are some great developments in Braamfontein, and the "spring by the brambles" is looking good. Now it is time to build on these developments.

Neil FraserLOOKING at my Citichat records, it appears that the last time I wrote about Braamfontein, apart from covering the individual projects taking place there, was two years ago.

It's time for a revisit, so I did one of my meanders last week to catch up on what's happening in the area.

First, some historical background: according to GA Leyds' History of Johannesburg, Braamfontein ("the spring by the brambles") was originally a farm and the property of one Lindeque who sold it to one FD Geldenhuys. The farm evidently covered an enormous area as Leyds says that "Parktown, Melville, Greenside, Roosevelt Park and Northcliff, et cetera" were all established on it at one time or another.

According to other sources, the original owner of the farm, dating back to 1853, was actually a Gert Bezuidenhout. He, in turn, sold it to FJ Bezuidenhout, who subdivided it - probably for family because there is a record of GP and CW Bezuidenhout each buying a third in 1862, and further subdivisions being made in 1886 "at escalating prices". The Braamfontein township itself appears to have been declared in 1888/9 when it was recognised as an "official extension of Johannesburg proper".

But it seems to have also been called Clifton, a name that subsequently disappeared and the name of the farm retained to identify the area as we know it now. Leyds records that "a portion was bought by the Transvaal Consolidated Land Company Limited" (which had close ties with the Corner House Group), which laid out the Braamfontein township. This original township stretched from the Old Cemetery along Noord Street to Joubert Park and included the old Wanderers' Ground. Lindeque, evidently, only bought a portion of the farm much later - in 1884 - and the portion he bought was where the Country Club was established in 1906.

Leyds records that part of Braamfontein along Smit and Wolmarans streets became known as Wanderers' View, "when the Wanderers' Ground had many trees and was pleasant to look on". This was also the site for a number of up-market houses but, because they faced south and never had any sun, their owners soon sold them.

Nigel Mandy, in A City Divided, says that eventually "the realisation dawned that in the southern hemisphere a north-facing aspect is best. Soon the rich were moving over the crest of the ridge to sunny sheltered Parktown with its wide views of the north. The middle classes went north and east, first to Central Braamfontein and then to suburbs like Hillbrow, Yeoville and Bellevue."

Keith Beavon, describing the area in the 1950s in his Johannesburg, the Making and the Shaping of the City, refers to it as "a low income white working class area - Braamfontein was then an area of semi-detached cottages, small flats, cheap hotels and canteens".

Leyds wrote that most of the up-market houses "ended their existence, which had started so full of hope and promise, as second rate lodging houses, now being replaced with blocks of flats".
 


Positive changes
In the early to mid-1950s two initiatives positively changed the nature of Braamfontein, although both were to have a reciprocating negative effect on the CBD. The first was the decision by the then city council to relocate from the CBD to Braamfontein Hill; and the second was the rezoning of land in Braamfontein to commercial rights.

Some business rights had been granted in 1946 but it was only in the early 1950s that business started to view Braamfontein as an alternate to the CBD or to going further north. As a result, it attracted the likes of Eskom, SAB, ICI and Shell. Beavon records that, in 1950, there were only 5 000m² of office space in Braamfontein but that this had increased to 163 000m² by 1965. (Today's office space is something of the order of 475 000m²).

Braamfontein became the home of landscaped A-grade office blocks, upmarket restaurants, some service retail, theatres, hotels and sought-after flats along the northern ridge. Students also lunched, shopped and sought entertainment (ie quaffed vast quantities of beer!) in Braamfontein.

In the 1990s, while the entire inner city area was in freefall, Braamfontein was considered "too far south for comfort" and joined the general decline of the CBD. The University of the Witwatersrand's once porous border shared with Braamies was made impermeable and the university created some retail and service retail on the campus, dealing a blow to retail in the precinct that it had traditionally supported.

Another problem in the area was its "alleyways" - required in a by-gone planning era but adding to the feeling of an unmanaged environment - dirty and dark and perceived as magnets to criminals.
 


Regeneration initiative
The concept of a Braamfontein Regeneration Initiative was first raised at the Urban Futures Conference, hosted by Wits in July 2000. It was to have three main thrusts - from the university, the council and the private sector. Braamfontein, surprisingly to some at the time, was still home to heavyweights such as Sappi, Liberty, SA Breweries and the JD Group, among others.

Citichat 20/2003 covered the regeneration initiative as follows: "The macro objective for this area is to re-establish Braamfontein as an area that is well-managed, vibrant, physically attractive and well-lit with a growing evening economy offering an excellent public environment to the number of corporate head offices clustered in the area as well as to the commercial, residential, hotel and restaurant sectors. The total value of the various projects that make up the overall activity is probably of the order of R200-million.

  • The Sappi corporate head office development sees the stitching together of two existing buildings through the construction of a third between them, which appears to be growing at speed;
  • The construction of the Sappi basement parking under Ameshoff and Simmonds streets is well under way - it will be utilised by the Civic Theatre for secure parking at night and over weekends, a great plus for the Civic;
  • Work is about to start on the public park upgrading, the park lies to the south of the Civic Theatre;
  • Work is complete on the Liberty parking garage on the corner of Melle and Ameshoff streets and I hear that the JD Group will also be investing in a parking garage on the vacant site behind its corporate head office between the new Liberty parking garage and the Sappi development;
  • Tenders have been called for the privately funded 'corporate public space upgrade' which will see Hoofd, Ameshoff and Stiemens streets, as well as their north-south connecting roadways, being transformed;
  • Work has already started south of this area on the council-financed public space upgrade which picks up Jorissen and De Korte streets; and
  • Work has also started on the upgrading to Jan Smuts/Bertha linking into the new Nelson Mandela Bridge while the steel footway bridge over Bertha Street is being demolished."

Remember that frightful bridge over Bertha Street? Isn't it great that it has not only gone but that it provided space for the erection of the quite stupendous Eland public artwork right where such animals and many other species would have roamed just a century-and-a-half ago.
 


City improvement district
A critical part of the Braamfontein Regeneration Initiative was the establishment of a city improvement district (CID) to provide security and maintenance of the upgraded environment. A drive round the area today reflects all the marks of attention to localised urban management with a high visibility of CID staff, banners, greening and a general feeling of order.

Since the work listed above was completed, a great deal has happened in the precinct. The upgrading of the urban environment attracted investment back to the area and numerous office blocks, maybe as many as 50, were either upgraded or they were converted into residential accommodation. I would think that quite a couple of thousand residential units ranging from student accommodation to middle-to-higher income units have been provided in just the past three or four years. Currently, a new block of flats is under construction on the western end of Smit Street, while on the eastern side the high rise Traduna office building is about to be converted into flats. What a view they will have!

It is interesting to see some of the names of buildings still reflecting earlier investors' obsession with New York - so we have Times Square, The Liberty, Broadway and The Manhattan, et cetera. One of the quite spectacular refurbishments was that of Stirling House in Smit Street, which has stunning views over the city and Nelson Mandela Bridge. Behind it, Juta Street provides the playful "steel trees" public artworks. New eateries have also started springing up.


Civic Theatre
The Civic Theatre has also added to the revitalisation of the precinct, not just with its outstanding programmes that play to full houses, but also with its beautifully upgraded park and the next-door headquarters of the National Ballet looking over the Sappi piazza. All of this was financed by Sappi. The Alexander Theatre, closed for many, many years, re-opened some time ago.

Some developers were quick to recognise the potential offered by buildings of a bygone era. The Bridge Precinct - named because of its proximity to Nelson Mandela Bridge - encompasses five interlinked sites bound by De Beer, Smit and Melle streets. It was recently announced that all 5 000m2 of commercial space in the development (started three years ago) was now fully let.

"A perfect example of a successful transformation of old buildings to buildings which add value to the urban landscape."

A hotel built in 1906 has been converted into an office furniture showroom; an old butchery that was completely abandoned has been revamped into a chic office loft setup. Rosebank College has become the tenant in another building that had also been standing vacant for many years, now totally revamped and modernized. It will also be the tenant in a new 1 500m2 building that is being constructed adjacent to the existing building it occupies. This is one of the first totally new commercial buildings constructed in Braamfontein in many years.
 


Bus Rapid Transit
The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project is planned to link the city with Braamfontein and Braamfontein with its eastern neighbour, Hillbrow. The last proposal I saw has the system looping Smit and Wolmarans streets at Melle Street, which continues north up to Jorissen and De Korte streets, linking back to the loop that goes around the Metro Centre. The Gautrain station is progressing on the east side of Rissik Street and I'm sure that Braamies will be set for far higher density living and one can expect new and extended residential over the next few years.
 


Concerns
Downsides? Firstly, I understand that the revitalisation has brought higher rentals, which have negatively affected many of the smaller entrepreneurial businesses that have been operating in the precinct for many years. Somehow, the City must help to retain them for they add something special to the area and most return-driven investors just won't be interested.

Secondly, there is the "wrapping"! The two buildings that flank the northern end of Nelson Mandela Bridge are both completely wrapped in advertising - the building on the eastern edge has been vacant as long as I can remember, the owner clearly enjoying the income he receives without the hassle of tenants, but we are all subjected to vast urban pollution as a result. There is a proliferation of giant size advertising in the precinct - we somehow do not seem to be able to get our outdoor advertising policy into balance.

Thirdly is the issue of pedestrian friendly streets. Generally the streets are clogged with parked vehicles. Braamfontein has become something of a disaster; the corporates have all looked after their staff with fine parking garages - I see Liberty now has a bridge link across Ameshoff Street between its offices and parking.

Maybe we need a new by-law requiring a decent percentage of private parking blocks to also provide for the public. Jorissen Street, before the addition of a BRT lane, is already very choked - another example of a street grid-locked by double parking and little enforcement.


Auto dependency
I received a note during the week titled: "Communities can be designed or modified to significantly reduce auto dependency". It suggests that we look hard at the following:

"Features that decrease the number and length of auto trips include:

  • Convenient access (within a 10-minute walk) to a comfortable, safe and dependable transit system;
  • An easy-to-use and safe network of bike routes and trails for cyclists of all ages with links to transit and other destinations;
  • Pedestrian-friendly streets linking major destinations;
  • A compact development pattern with a mix of homes, stores, schools and offices;
  • Centrally located neighbourhood-serving retail and services;
  • A variety of apartments, condominiums and townhouses suitable for all family sizes and income levels; and
  • Squares and plazas, cultural centres, parks and playgrounds."

Braamies has a great deal of the right ingredients; we need to ensure that we build on what has been done and not allow the precinct to slowly subside beneath the renewed pressures that revitalisation brings with it.

It has done well - the old "divide" between corporate north and schlock south has disappeared and "the spring by the brambles" is looking good; let's build on that.

Ciao, Neil


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